Dwyane Wade, who averaged 34 minutes of action in the first three games, and the Heat looked gassed from the start of Thursday night's Game 4. The San Antonio Spurs sensed it and pushed Miami to the brink with a 107-86 victory to take a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
The play that encapsulates this game, and maybe the Finals if San Antonio wins, is the Kawhi Leonard putback slam with a minute to go in the first half. It was the Spurs players who created the room for Leonard to come flying in from the perimeter. And almost once per game you can count on LeBron James or Wade to miss a box-out. This time they were the bookends of the emblematic score.
Leonard gets media attention for his offensive production, but he has also taken a step forward with his individual defense on James. James attempted just two shots (0-for-2) despite recording 17 touches on 24 plays when directly guarded by Leonard in the first half. Leonard is getting under James' skin, as LeBron trash-talked Leonard for quite some time after scoring a 3 in the second half. Leonard, true to form, never said a word.
As this series has progressed, the impact of San Antonio's deeper bench has increased. In Game 4, every one of the 13 active players on the Spurs scored. Indeed, it is remarkable how the third-stringers execute the same plays as the starters, albeit without the crispness or imagination.
The sort of energy Miami needs from now on was provided only by James, Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem in Game 4. But one of the few silver linings, as the Heat head to San Antonio for Game 5, other than the two days off, is that Haslem, Shane Battier and James Jones got some burn and may have picked up some rhythm. Mario Chalmers also played until the end, probably because coach Erik Spoelstra wanted to build up his confidence.
When Andersen came in to play in the third quarter, he brought the energy the team needed. Unfortunately for him, the rest of the team was so lethargic on defense that Birdman's physicality and energy stood out in the eyes of the referees, who started charging him with fouls. Had the rest of the Heat been as active and rough, Birdman would have blended in better. The Heat should have made the officials adjust to a more physical game.
In particular, the Heat need to get into the passing lanes on the wings, efforts that could have produced some turnovers or made San Antonio less pass-happy. According to ESPN Stats and Info, San Antonio averaged 2.6 passes per possession in Games 1 and 2, and 3.2 passes per possession in Games 3 and 4. In these past two games, the Spurs shot 61.3 percent when they made at least three passes.
The Spurs were way too comfortable running their half-court offense Thursday night. Boris Diaw again played a big part in the Spurs' excellent ball movement. In Game 4, he was a bucket, a rebound and an assist short of a triple-double.
In 2002-03, while averaging 25 minutes per game with Pau-Orthez in France's ProA League, Diaw posted 7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists per game, for which he was named MVP of the league. French MVP voters saw his greatness and understood his contributions then. Do NBA fans and experts appreciate his game now?